JAKARTA Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will cut short his trip to the G20 summit meeting in order to oversee the response to a deadly volcanic eruption at home, he said Thursday.
Volcano Mount Merapi, on the outskirts of Yogyakarta city in Central Java, began spewing searing hot gas and ash clouds more than two weeks ago, since when it has killed 194 people and displaced more than 320,000, as well as disrupted flights.
President Yudhoyono said he will depart for the G20 meeting in Seoul Thursday, but will cut his trip to just one day. From the South Korean capital he will fly to Japan briefly for an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting before returning home Saturday.
"I need to make sure that the handling of Merapi is working well," Yudhoyono said. "I cannot leave my country for too long."
The country is also struggling with the aftermath of a tsunami off Sumatra in late October that killed at least 445 people.
Indonesia's top volcanologist Surono told Reuters that the intensity of the eruptions was waning, but a 20 km (12 miles) exclusion zone around the summit remained in place.
"This morning our monitoring camera showed hot lava coming out along with thundering sounds 12 km from the peak," he said.
"So people must be patient, because we will not downgrade it from its highest alert status or lift the 20 km exclusion zone. As I have said again and again, this is a marathon."
The area surrounding the volcano resembles a lunar landscape which the military negotiates using special tank-like vehicles, passing villages buried in ash.
At least 146 people have been killed by hot gas or ash since the volcano began erupting and a further 48 have died in related incidents, such as vehicle accidents or in refugee camps, said Sugeng Triutomo from the National Disaster Management Agency.
The eruptions also cut short U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to Indonesia this week. The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert Wednesday warning of possible disruptions to U.S. citizens traveling to Indonesia.
"We urge U.S. citizens in Indonesia or traveling through the region to make contingency plans, carry extra funds, purchase travel insurance, and closely monitor both the news and air carrier announcements. U.S. citizens should stay away from Mount Merapi," it said.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Thursday issued a similar travel advisory, warning Australians that flights could be disrupted and that travel near Merapi could be dangerous for people with respiratory ailments.
A spokesman for Jakarta's Sukarno-Hatta main international airport said all flights in and out of Jakarta were running as scheduled Thursday. Several international carriers have canceled flights in recent days.
Gordon Jackson from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said one cloud from Merapi was spreading out to the west of the volcano and has occasionally extended over Jakarta, affecting aircraft operations. The other was higher at 10-12 km, across a large section of the eastern Indian Ocean and Indonesia.
(Reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu and Telly Nathalia; Writing by Sunanda Creagh; Editing by Neil Chatterjee and Daniel Magnowski)